When tracker Joy and I were recently tracking a female leopard on foot, we noticed the remains of a Leopard Tortoise’s shell in small pieces on the ground. After much deliberation as to what could have led to its demise, Joy suggested to me that the tortoise may have been caught and eaten by a Southern Ground Hornbill– which feeds on various prey species.
This got me thinking about the variety of beak sizes and shapes we see on the beautiful birds at Londolozi and how they help with their survival and reproduction.
What is a Beak?
The beak is made up of a finely strutted bone sheathed in a horny covering made of a tough protein called keratin. It is a highly adaptable and essential body part that plays a crucial role in each avian species. During the evolution of the bird, the heavy teeth and powerful jaw of their early reptilian ancestors were gradually changed into an efficient beak structure that is lighter and more robust, and is now found on the modern bird today.
The size and shape of the bird’s beak play a fundamental role in how the bird finds food or catches its prey.
Some birds, such as Herons and Egrets, have long, slender beaks that they use to spear fish and other aquatic creatures. Other birds, such as African Hawk-Eagles and Falcons, have sharp, hooked beaks that they use to catch and kill their prey mid-flight. Additionally, some birds, like the Yellow-billed Hornbill, use their beak to break open the top of active termite mounds to feed on the millions of termites, or sift through the leaf litter on the ground to find other invertebrates.
Fundamental for Feeding
One of the most important functions of a bird’s beak is feeding. Birds have different types of beaks that are adapted to suit their diet. For example, a Cardinal Woodpecker has a long, sharp beak that it uses to drill into tree trunks to extract insects, while a Kingfisher has a large, sharp spear-like beak that it uses to ‘stab’ fish in the water.
Similarly, a Sunbird has a long, thin beak that curves downwards to extract nectar from flowers, while a Common Greenshank has a long thin beak that curves upwards to probe in the mud around waterholes for any crustaceans or aquatics insects. Not to mention the Vulture, which has a sharp, hooked beak used to tear apart rotting flesh.
Miraculous for Mate Attraction
In addition to helping birds find food, beaks also play a key role in attracting a mate. Many bird species have brightly coloured and uniquely shaped beaks that they use to attract the opposite sex during courtship. At Londolozi for example, the male Knob-billed Duck has an unusual fleshy comb on its upper mandible during the breeding season to attract a mate. Similarly, male fire finches have brightly coloured beaks that they use to showcase their fitness and attract a female.
Crafty for Nest Building
Beaks also play an important role in nest-building. Many birds use their beaks to gather materials to build their nests, such as twigs, grass, and leaves. Additionally, some birds, like woodpeckers, use their beaks to drill holes into trees or other surfaces to create a cavity in which to build their nest.
Diving deeper into understanding why birds have such different beaks reminds me how much I still have to learn about the bird world. It is fascinating how essential the beak is for a bird when eating, hunting, attracting a mate, as well as building a nest. Without their carefully adapted beaks, it would be difficult for birds to survive in the wild and fully optimise their niche that they occupy.